Planning what should be a joyous occasion when parents are divorced can be no laughing matter.
"If I have to make one point, I'd make this in big, bold letters," says child psychologist Dr. Ottenstein, "it's that this is a special occasion for the child. It's important that both parents show their support for the child. Be flexible," he advises, "and set your differences aside so that you can set up the system in the way that works best for everyone involved."
"There are so many variables," Ottenstein remarks. "Do both parents want the occasion equally; is one paying the entire cost or are the expenses being shared; can both parents invite family and friends or is one dominating the event."
So stressful can this event be that Joan Kristall, director of Jewish Family Services' Program for Families of Separation, Divorce, and Remarriage, recently sponsored a workshop on "Planning for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah When You Are Separated or Divorced."
"Planning for this long-awaited Bar or Bat Mitzvah brings with it much anxiety and panic," says Mrs. Kristall. "Old anger is fueled; sadness reawakened; and the battle is once again staged with the adolescent being pulled and forced to stand loyal with one or the other parent."
In addition to the nervousness felt at being able to competently chant their Torah portion, teenagers often feel an overwhelming sense of anxiety regarding their parents' ability to "behave themselves" in public.
To make this special occasion a joyous one – and as stress-free as possible – for all concerned, Mrs. Kristall offers these following tips:
To that end, he and his ex-wife will divide the cost of the upcoming celebration, and they have worked together to plan the event, from choosing the invitations, to selecting the menu, to deciding on the musical entertainment at the reception following the service.
"If we're not in wholehearted agreement," says Tom, "then we at least have an understanding of what's going on and just what this occasion means for our child."
That's the kind of attitude that would gladden the heart of Rabbi Daniel Weiner of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. "The overriding point I try to get across to divorced parents who are acting in less than mature ways is, 'This is the child's day.' Sometimes I have to be very blunt about it," he says, "but there are times when parents really need to be straightened out."
Weiner reminds parents that their child has ties to each of them and needs to feel that both parents are invested in this occasion, which has both symbolic and public meaning.
"It's important in this situation," says Rabbi Weiner, "for both parents to have the proper perspective. The essence of a bar or bat mitzvah is the coming of age of the child, his or her debut as a Jewish adult, and the parents play an integral role in that debut... they are indispensable."
Susan (not her real name) is hoping that she can make that point to her ex-husband; if she can't do it by herself, she¹s prepared to enlist the aid of a counselor or her rabbi. Though she realizes she may have to pay for the event herself, she hopes that she and her ex-husband will be able to communicate so that they can have a smooth-running celebration. But she's already considering the alternative. "If he doesn't want to be involved, I'll do it on my own."
This article originally appeared in the Baltimore Jewish Times.